Friday, April 13, 2012

Insults, Apologies, and the False Equivalency in the War of Words

On Wednesday night, Democratic strategist Hillary Rosen claimed that Mitt Romney’s wife Ann had never worked a day in her life. The comment became a viral controversy almost immediately. Rosen’s comments and the resulting firestorm have been likened to Rush Limbaugh referring to Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and “prostitute” and a number of other controversies of recent vintage. But I want to look a bit more closely at a few things, including both what was said and meant as well as the aftermath.

So, first let’s understand who Hillary Rosen is … and is not. According to Wikipedia (again, I know, I know), she is a lobbyist and a democratic pundit. She is a paid contributor to CNN. She is also an activist for gay rights (she is a lesbian). But she is not a consultant to either the Obama campaign or to the Democratic National Committee. She is a TV talking head.

Next, as always in these sorts of kerfuffles, it is important to go beyond the one-line sound bite and review precisely what was said, in its entirety and in context (I’ve highlighted the statement that has generated the controversy):

With respect to economic issues, I think actually that Mitt Romney is right, that ultimately women care more about the economic well-being of their families and the like. But he doesn’t connect on that issue either. What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying, “Well, you know my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues and when I listen to my wife that’s what I’m hearing.”

Guess what? His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and  why do we worry about their future.

So I think that, yes,  it’s about these positions and yes, I think there will be a war of words about the positions. But there’s something much more fundamental about Mitt Romney. He just seems so old-fashioned when it comes to women and I think that comes across and I think that that’s going to hurt him over the long term. He just doesn’t really see us as equal.

(Transcript from

Clearly Rosen’s comment about Ann Romney having never worked was wrong and inappropriate. But consider the following: First, let’s revise that statement ever-so-slightly and see if it remains quite to troubling. What if we add the phrase “outside the home” to the end of the sentence? Does that change how you feel about what Rosen said? Now, normally I’d probably argue that changing a quotation like that isn’t fair. But go back and read the next sentence of Rosen’s statement and then think again about the point that Rosen was trying to make. Was Rosen denigrating Ann Romney’s work as a mother or was Rosen critiquing Ann Romney’s understanding of the struggles of women who do work outside the home? Not to put too crass of a point on it, but how many working women have dressage horses and a “couple” of Cadillacs?

I think Ann Romney, and all women who have chosen to stay home and raise their children, are to be applauded and recognized for their efforts and contributions. Heaven knows that I hear it when I don’t give my wife enough credit for her efforts with our kids. But I think that there is a difference between a woman has is able to choose to stay home with her children and one who is not economically stable enough to make that choice. I’m sure that Ann Romney, like other stay-at-home moms, had to work very hard in the day-to-day effort to raise her children. But do we think that she ever worried whether she’d be able to afford to put food on the table or clothes on their backs? Did she ever have to skip a meal because the family couldn’t afford for both she and her children to eat? Did she ever skip any of her medications because they couldn’t afford it and pay for medications needed by her children (or food or shelter)? Did she ever miss a school play or a sporting event because her boss wouldn’t give her time off or because she couldn’t afford not to get her paycheck? Did she ever worry about if her children would get into college, let alone whether the family could afford to pay for college? Of course not. And I don’t begrudge her any of the financial security she and her family have. After all, it’s what most of us strive for. But there is a difference between Ann Romney’s life experience and that of a mother who has to work outside the home to support or help support her family.

In the end, I think that the point that Rosen was trying to make, however inarticulately, was valid. Ann Romney has “never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing”. And thus, while she may tell Mitt Romney that women really care about economic issues, her discussion of those issues, however sincere and well-meaning, is not a concern spoken from experience. And that’s OK, too. I mean I’ve never been pregnant or had an abortion, but there’s nothing wrong with me speaking out on the issue. But my understanding of the issue is obviously tempered by the fact that I’m not a woman, I can’t get pregnant, and those are issues that I have not and will not have to face myself. We don’t have to have experience to speak out or about issues, but the experience or lack thereof is an element in what we have to say.

Now leaving aside the substance of what Rosen said, the various responses are really interesting. First, it’s worth noting that Rosen herself apologized and tried to explain better what she meant. Her apology came less than a day after the original statement.

Let's put the faux “war against stay at home moms” to rest once and for all. As a mom I know that raising children is the hardest job there is. As a pundit, I know my words on CNN last night were poorly chosen. In response to Mitt Romney on the campaign trail referring to his wife as a better person to answer questions about women than he is, I was discussing his lack of a record on the plight of women’s financial struggles. Here is my more fulsome view of the issues. As a partner in a firm full of women who work outside of the home as well as stay at home mothers, all with plenty of children, gender equality is not a talking point for me. It is an issue I live every day. I apologize to Ann Romney and anyone else who was offended. Let’s declare peace in this phony war and go back to focus on the substance.

In addition, almost immediately, David Axelrod, President Obama’s chief political strategist and Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign chair, both expressed their outrage at Rosen’s original comment. And those expressions of outrage came within hours of the comment. In fact, I saw the apologies before I’d even heard of the controversy. Michelle Obama talked about her support for stay-at-home mothers and the respect that they deserve. And even President Obama weighed in on the comment:

President Obama strongly disagreed with Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen’s controversial comment about Ann Romney, saying today that “there’s no tougher job than being a mom.”

“Anybody who would argue otherwise, I think, probably needs to rethink their statement,” the president told Bruce Aune of ABC’s Cedar Rapids affiliate KCRG.

The president went a step further, suggesting candidates’ families should be off limits. “I don’t have a lot of patience for commentary about the spouses of political candidates,” he told KCRG.

“My general view is those of us who are in the public life, we’re fair game. Our families are civilians,” he said. “I haven’t met Mrs. Romney, but she seems like a very nice woman who is supportive of her family and supportive of her husband. I don’t know if she necessarily volunteered for this job so, you know, we don’t need to be directing comments at them. I think me and Governor Romney are going to have more than enough to argue about during the course of this campaign.”

One of the problems here is that Rosen’s comment has sparked another case of false equivalency; that is, equating Rosen’s comment to comments from the other side of the political divide and somehow believing that all “bad” comments are equal and sort of cancel each other out. Of course Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Sandra Fluke are the most obvious comparison. But that comparison is both wrong and worth analyzing a bit further.

First, recall that Limbaugh didn’t just call Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute” one time; rather, he continued his attack against her for three days. His comment was a mistake in what he was trying to say. Second, his attack against Fluke was full of outright lies. And the larger point he was trying to make? Well, it didn’t really have anything at all to do with what Fluke was testifying about. She was was talking about birth control for health reasons; Limbaugh was talking about sex.

And unlike Rosen who apologized the very next day, it took Limbaugh several days to issue his non-apology (see my discussion of Limbaugh’s faux apology Anatomy of an Apology). And that “apology” only came after pressure from the public began to build on his advertisers.

Let’s also compare the relative status and importance of Rosen and Limbaugh to the left and right, respectively. Had you ever heard of Rosen before this? I’ll admit, as much of a political and news junkie as I am, I don’t recall ever having heard of her before. But I bet that you’d heard of Rush Limbaugh before, right? How much influence does Rosen have on Democrats? How much does Limbaugh have on Republicans? Exactly.

And then let’s think about the responses to the comments. As mentioned previously, even though Rosen is not associated with either the Obama campaign or the DNC, representatives of those organizations almost immediately took to social media to criticize her statements. And by the next day President Obama was doing so as well. Now compare those responses to the virtual silence from Republicans following Limbaugh’s attack (not to mention the numerous bloggers on the right who defended or repeated Limbaugh’s attack). It wasn’t until several days after Limbaugh’s attack that Romney responded at all. His response? “I’ll just say this, which is, it’s not the language I would have used.” Wow. Such a strong condemnation! Please go back and re-read President Obama’s comment regarding the statement about Ann Romney “not working” and compare that to Romney’s statement about Sandra Fluke being a “slut” and “prostitute” who is “having so much sex” she can’t afford her birth control. So, Gov. Romney, what language would you have used?

Or consider some of the things that CNN’s Republican pundits have said. Remember my post CNN Provides a Platform for a Vile Voice of the Tea Party about Dana Loesch and her baseless accusations of sexual crimes and favorable comments about a blatantly anti-Semitic article? Funny, but I don’t recall hearing Mitt Romney’s campaign manager or the chair of the Republican National Committee denouncing Loesch.

Then there is CNN contributor Erick Erikson who accused President Obama of choosing to “pervert God’s word” and suggested that President Obama was only “claiming” to be a Christian. Where was the firestorm over those allegations? Where was the condemnation from the Romney campaign, the RNC, and others? Where was the apology?

Or what about when Limbaugh, Fox contributor Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck and others criticized Michelle Obama for shopping at Target? Or when the Drudge Report blamed Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” exercise campaign for pedestrian deaths (seriously)? Or when one of the Breitbart websites attacked Michelle Obama for her weight and her healthy eating advocacy in blatantly racist terms (and just so you can see how bad it really is, here’s a cartoon that ran on a Breitbart website):

Seriously. Have you heard Mitt Romney or the RNC criticize Breitbart’s sites for running this cartoon?

Bloggers on the right even criticized Michelle Obama for a joke that was written for her to say during a guest appearance on iCarly (to praise the show for supporting American soldiers).

Barely a word of critique (if any at all) of any of this from Mitt Romney (or the other Republican candidates), from the RNC, or from any other important voices on the right. Apologies? Yeah, right.

I could probably go on and on. There’s the picture of Marie Antoinette with Michelle Obama’s head (and muscular arms). There’s the United States Congressman complaining that Michelle Obama has an overly large posterior (a comment for which he did apologize). And heaven help you if you should happen to go read some of what is said about Michelle Obama on right wing blogs. And we all know what the right has to say about President Obama (Muslim, Marxist, Terrorist, etc., etc., etc.). Where were “god-fearing” people like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum when preachers talk about praying for Obama’s death?

The point, though, is this. Someone on the left said something wrong. It was an inarticulate way to try to make a substantive point. She apologized. And people all across her side of the political aisle (and up and down the chain of command) jumped, not to her defense, but to call out and condemn her comments. But when someone on the right says something — and the something is likely to be far harsher, far crueler, far less likely to have anything whatsoever to do with any sort of substance, and far more likely to be based on race — then those on the right rush, not to criticize the statement, but to defend it. Or they stay silent. Apologies are rarely forthcoming. This whole evidence gives proof to the notion of false equivalency and appropriateness of response. One side criticizes and apologizes. The other says far harsher things without apology or critique.

Perhaps voters can show that we see through these sorts of games.


Shortly after posting the above entry, I remembered something else that I’d meant to touch on. Yesterday, in response to Rosen’s comment, the Catholic League tweeted the following:

Lesbian Dem Hilary Rosen tells Ann Romney she never worked a day in her life. Unlike Rosen, who had to adopt kids, Ann raised 5 of her own.

Yes, that’s right. The Catholic League felt the need not only to raise Rosen’s sexual orientation but also to demean the fact that she “had to adopt kids”. Query the purpose of noting that Rosen is gay (and to those who say, “but you did it in the beginning of this post”, the reason I did so was because I’d intended to mention this tweet). And is the notion that Rosen “had to adopt kids” any less offensive than the suggestion that Ann Romney never worked? I’d argue that it is a much more offensive statement, especially as it is not tied to any substance whatsoever; it doesn’t make any kind of point at all.

To their credit, the Republican National Committee (via spokesperson Sean Spicer) promptly criticized the Catholic League for the tweet:

The @catholicleague should be encouraging adoption, not demeaning the parents who are blessed to raise these children

Except, notice that the RNC’s spokesperson only mentions the adoption portion of the attack on Rosen; he says nothing about the Catholic League raising Rosen’s sexual orientation as an issue. Oh, and I haven’t heard Mitt Romney (or Ann Romney … or how about Catholic Rick Santorum?) criticize the Catholic League yet.

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